Book Review: Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies by Andy Root
In his beautifully-titled Exploding Stars, Dead Dinosaurs, and Zombies: Youth Ministry in an Age of Science, Andy Root (see our introduction to Dr. Root here) calls youth ministers to run towards, rather than away from, scientific discussion with students, believing that true engagement with scientific ideas creates space for students to engage with the deepest existential longings of their hearts. While his narratives style may seem quirky, the honesty shared between his fictional youth pastor and current and former students will resonate with anyone in student ministry.
Root begins by drawing a helpful distinction between the sciences (a collection of fields in which specific questions are analyzed according to the data gained from observable and repeatable tests) and the social practice of science, a movement of disenchantment which flattens the concept of science into a worldview/faith claim of strict naturalism. Root notes that the latter of these is particularly appealing to young people as it promises a sense of control and functionalism in a STEM-dominated world, and often rebels against formulations presented to youth as children (more than one student in Root’s narrative calls the idea of faith ‘childish’). This is helpful, as it helps to explain why evidentialist approaches to science-faith dialogue (such as those in the Intelligent Design movement, which seek to find observable data showing God’s creative work as the only plausible explanation) often fail to connect with students - they aren’t really looking to be convinced that faith is ‘right’.
A second example of this subtle critique of how science and faith have historically been pitted against one another comes when Root pulls the curtain back on the practice of science throughout history. He shows how many scientists have viewed their work in existential (and sometimes religious) terms - seeking to experience wonder, mystery, and transcendence rather than explaining it away. This is different than common science-faith discussions that wrestle over whether certain historical figures (Einstein, Galileo, Newton are common examples) believed in God ‘enough’ to combat those who decry faith as antithetical to science.
Parts of Root’s text may be unnerving - besides his tendency to explain concepts using language and theology he introduces in other works (such as his concept of divine action; again see our profile of Root for help), he seems to gravitate towards certain scientific positions almost as an afterthought, failing to linger on tensions or alternate views. However, in part this may be intentional. Root is attempting to model how ‘the point’ of science-faith discussions is not for one to ‘win’ or for all details of each to be syncretistically explained away, but for students to find in their scientific inquiries an existential hope that such discussions can be relocated into a worldview with room for the supernatural to break in - that the Holy Spirit might meet and minister to students in this moment of openness and humility, reminding them that they are not alone, that they are loved and forgiven by Jesus, and that they can delve into the mysteries of God’s world without the fear of crashing into a nihilistic wall of their own meaninglessness.
Because of the juxtaposition of dense theological and scientific discussion and accessible narrative and tone, Exploding Stars might be best consumed by a reading group of youth workers who can share in its cathartic moments and help one another pick through its difficult passages. Others might find value in using some of the fictional conversations in the book as case studies for small groups, or as jumping off points for further discussion. Root also has produced a helpful video study guide. All in all, Exploding Stars continues Root’s excellent attempts to dignify student inquiry and action as potential moments for the work of God to take hold, rather than as problems for utilitarian youth ministries to identify and ‘fix’.